Oliver Cromwell is rumoured to be interred under the church – his daughters are said to have retrieved his body from the burial pit at Tyburn after his posthumous execution and secretly buried him in the family crypt. When the church was restored in 1882 the vicar opened the vault and found one extra coffin that was unaccounted for. Fearful that if he let the word out that Oliver Cromwell was resting there, the church would be over-run with curious tourists, so he had the vault walled up and it is still lost to this day. The ghosts of Cromwell’s two daughters are said to haunt the graveyard, distressed that their family burial plot is now unmarked and unknown. There are many other places which claim to be the home of the Lord Protector's remains, so it's far from certain that Chiswick has the rightful claim.
Another inmate of the churchyard is a former resident of my road, one Frederick Hitch VC, hero and survivor of Rorke’s Drift. His tomb is topped by a stone pith helmet. After his discharge from the army with severe wounds he struggled to make a living on his disability pension of only a tenner a year. He produced eight children and eventually became a cabbie. He was buried in St Nicholas graveyard with full military honours. Another military man is Trumpet Major Henry Joy, who was the bugler who sounded the charge of the Light Brigade for General the Earl Lucan at the battle of Balaclava.
But it is the graves of ordinary people who are the source of interest to an author. My personal favourite names from the Chiswick graveyard are Aylett Larkman, Theodora Cork, Eliza Belcher, Murgatroyd Northrop and Cyril Bunce. There is also scope to mix and match! As yet I haven't deployed these – but give me time!
If I can’t find inspiration among tombstones I check the online baby naming sites. I've used this by nationality as well - sourcing the name for a character in Kurinji Flowers (Hemanga, which means golden skinned) from an Indian baby name site. It’s also been useful for Irish names. For my soon to be published book, The Green Ribbons, I found the first name Merritt, which struck me as unusual, but also fitting for a clergyman - then paired it with Nightingale, stolen from a chap called Mr Nightingale (not sure if I ever knew his first name) who worked in the same office as me years ago. As a rule I avoid using names of friends and family as I don’t want them thinking I’ve based the character on them as well!
Old census returns are also happy hunting grounds. I've found some cracking names on there. I’ve also used them to find local names for different regions. I loved the surname Cake – a Dorset nameso when I later decided to relocate the book from Dorset to Berkshire I just had to hang onto the name as it was spot on for the character, Abigail Cake. The monosyllabic word cake with its double unvoiced consonants give it a hard sound which perfectly counterpoints its sweet meaning.
Of course the master of unusual and memorable names, that perfectly summed up his characters, was Charles Dickens. The loathsome, creepy Uriah Heep, the convict with a heart of gold Magwitch, Mr Bumble, Lady Deadlock and of course Ebenezer Scrooge – all highly memorable and instantly recognisable – and Scrooge has even entered the language.
What's your favourite character name?
Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World, Kurinji Flowers and Letters from a Patchwork Quilt. Her next book, The Green Ribbons will be published in spring 2016. To get advance warning of the book's release - including special pre-launch pricing, a free short story and other offers sign up to Clare's newsletter